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How robots are lending a hand with healthcare, medical devices and pharma worldwide

From pharma and medical device production to medical and research laboratories, the latest robotics solutions can support the human workforce and transform the quality, capacity and cost of operations, informs Subrata Karmakar, President - Head of Robotics & Discrete Automation Business, India at ABB India

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Healthcare has never been more in the spotlight than now. Pharma and medical device manufacturers are under pressure and need creative solutions that can improve the efficiency and quality of their operations, control costs and speed research and development times to launch products more quickly while coping with a worldwide shortage of skilled professionals to accomplish these tasks. Automation can help overcome these challenges and improve staff safety, with robots able to complete repetitive tasks up to 50 per cent faster than current manual processes, enhancing productivity and enabling highly skilled manufacturing, medical and laboratory staff to undertake more valuable activities.

Accurate, fast, flexible, tireless and able to work 24 hours a day, robots are well-suited to repetitive tasks, while also being flexible enough to switch between jobs, as needed. Recent technological advancements have brought robots a long way from their big, heavy-duty predecessors, designed primarily for the automotive industry. Today, robots have smaller footprints, far greater flexibility and integrated vision, all available in hygienic, wash-down-friendly models.

Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm (SCARA) robots are a good example of this design shift. Tabletop mountable and with a small footprint, SCARA robots fit well into the confined spaces typical of pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities. Whether they are dealing with tablets, test tubes, or syringes, SCARA robots are fast and accurate, performing articulate point-to-point movements, such as picking and placing, parts transfer, and parts handling.

The development of collaborative technologies means robots are also increasingly well suited to laboratories and medical facilities, as they don’t require safety fences to operate safely and efficiently alongside people. Collaboration enables people and robots to safely work together for maximum flexibility and efficiency, sharing the same workspaces and even cooperating on the same tasks, without jeopardizing speed and safety.

Laboratory and healthcare applications

Modern robots are not just found in manufacturing environments or logistic centres, they are increasingly incorporated as components of medical devices in laboratory environments, supporting anything from R&D in the pharmaceutical industry or universities to healthcare testing in medical facilities. Today’s robots can perform multiple tasks, are easy to program, and may even be able to manage laboratory equipment.

When it comes to general lab work, collaborative robots may be integrated into a device to undertake a range of repetitive, delicate and time-consuming laboratory activities, such as dosing, mixing and pipetting tasks, sterile instrument kitting and centrifuge loading and unloading. Devices integrated with robots may also be able to support temperature-controlled processes by automatically inserting and removing samples to and from special ovens to ensure they are incubated under the correct conditions.

In one notable application, a collaborative robot has been integrated by researchers from the European Institute of Oncology, to help staff manage an immuno-assay preparation process used to quantify the presence of virus antibodies. The assay preparation is extremely time-consuming, previously requiring lab staff to perform several repetitive operations, including the washing of well-plates, which was successfully taken over by the robot.

Untouched by human hands

The expanding ability of robots to take over a growing range of tasks throughout the production process, from laboratory testing and product development to manufacturing and then sorting and picking finished products for packing and shipping, can help make the mantra of ‘untouched by human hands’ a reality.

Contamination incidents and subsequent product recalls can be calamitous for the reputation of any business, and stringent legislation places great emphasis on traceability as a means of combatting counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Automated systems provide an ideal way to help minimize opportunities for human error, counterfeiting or tampering. For instance, robots with integrated vision can now scan packaging for barcodes that contain all the tracking and transaction data for the products. This data enables plant management systems to prevent counterfeit ingredients being used within a production process or contaminated products from being distributed to retailers or consumers.

Safety at work

Safety is absolutely critical in all healthcare environments, such as medical device production lines, laboratories, and hospitals. In order to minimise personnel exposure to harmful substances and biohazardous materials, robots can take over repetitive or strenuous tasks to improve the safety of employees.

Eyes on packaging

Vision systems are also expanding the application of robots in other areas of pharma production and packaging. With the growth of e-commerce, automation solutions are increasingly enabling cost-effective logistics for the pharma industry. Sweden’s largest online pharmacy, Apotea, delivers more than 170,000 packages to customers every week and has seen its productivity increase by 30 per cent since it installed three general-purpose robots to sort 35,000 packages a day into designated cages for distribution.

With robots now available in a growing range of designs with an ability to handle an expanding range of tasks, robotic automation is already making production, testing and R&D more efficient and productive across the healthcare and pharma industry around the globe. The aim is to research new applications and support the development of new cutting-edge robotics solutions, thereby reducing the number of manual procedures that need to be performed by people and improve the cost and accuracy of laboratory work, which will not just enhance patient satisfaction and but also ensure patient safety.

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